All the Way | ★★★★ | Justice Theater Project | Umstead Park United Church of Christ | Through Oct. 23

In a November 1963 conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., the activist Stanley Levison described Lyndon B. Johnson as “a Southern politician who’s spent his entire life trying to be president …. For the first time he can do whatever he wants.”

But All the Way, playwright Robert Schenkkan’s gritty, panoramic drama about Johnson’s first year as president, underscores how wrong Levison was. The brisk and occasionally breathtaking production at the Justice Theater Project reminds us of the few moves available to Johnson in his delicate, high-stakes dance across the minefield of issues that threatened to rip America apart after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

In retrospect, it’s amazing that this brusque, earthy legislator nimbly threaded among civil rights leaders, segregationist Southerners, senators, liberal legislators, and the press, not only keeping the fabric of American society from unraveling but enacting profound social change with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under Brook North’s direction, artistic director Jerry Sipp’s riveting, supersized performance as Johnson captures the contradictory facets of his personality. We see an idealist devoted to realizing the Kennedy administration’s loftiest goals (which Johnson would extend in his own Great Society initiatives) and dismantling a racism deeply entrenched in Southern culture and politics.

We also see a manipulative, ruthless politician adept at the “Texas Twist”—the coarse and callous realpolitik of cut-throat governance at the highest level. Before observing that “there’s no place for nice in a knife fight,” Johnson notes, “Politics is war, period …. You’re not running for office; you’re running for your life.”

As Johnson stands toe-to-toe with 1960s icons including partisan FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dan Oliver) and future vice president Hubert Humphrey (Alex DeVirgilis), we also witness, through the FBI’s covert bugging of social activists, the divisions that challenged the civil rights movement.

The impatience of young activists Stokely Carmichael (Daniel Cryer-Muthedath Ryder) and Bob Moses (Akili Holder-Cozart) manifests in growing arguments with NAACP leaders including King (sonorous Preston Campbell) and Roy Wilkins (robust Juan Isler).

Their direct action in the subsequent Mississippi Freedom Summer project, whose efforts to register Blacks to vote resulted in 35 burned churches and three activists’ deaths, is depicted in an electrifying funeral scene. The split among the leaders is made plain when Congress of Racial Equity leader David Dennis (Holder-Cozart) interrupts King’s eulogy with a call for action: “If you go back home and sit down and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us … and don’t do something about it—then God damn your souls! STAND UP!”

It is deeply jarring when Johnson seeks a modulated level of federal intervention in Mississippi afterward—one that doesn’t provoke open revolt among Southern politicians, weeks before the Democratic National Convention where he’s running to be his party’s candidate for president. It also reflects a conventional—and disturbing—political reality: it’s hard to effect change as a politician if you can’t get elected.

History shows that Johnson got the Voting Rights Act passed in August 1965, less than a year after being elected. In a theatrical version of a cinematic split screen, Shenkkan underlines the similarities in Dr. King’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize and a speech in New Orleans where Johnson made plain his stand on civil rights: “Whatever your views are, we have a constitution … [and] a new law of the land. A civil rights law. And you can vote for me or vote against me but I signed it, and by God, I am going to enforce it.”

Still, Schenkkan’s script and Sipp’s performance don’t smooth most of the rough edges of a leader who was largely unapologetic for the road he took.

He acknowledges the quantum imperfections, horse trading, arm twisting, and backroom deals that are a part of the political process when he knowingly asks the audience in a closing monologue, “Did it make you feel a little squeamish? Did you have to look away sometimes?” Then he pauses, before concluding, “This is how new things are born.”

A Great Big Woolly Mammoth Thawing From the Ice | ★★★★ | Burning Coal Theatre | Through Oct. 16

It’s best to know whom you’re traveling with before heading into the Alaskan outback. In the suspenseful world premiere of British playwright Tatty Hennessy’s tautly written drama, the wilderness experience destabilizes relationships among a superbly directed and acted quartet. First, free spirit Leah (A.C. Donohue), an environmental activist on a third date with Justin (Matt Hager), a rich Silicon Valley tech developer, learns that Jim, the opinionated father of their trail guide, Chris, is a longtime oil rigger on the Alaskan pipeline.

Then we learn Justin’s been hiding something, about the time Jim (impressive Gene Cordon) really starts losing patience with Chris (Ben Apple). As jealousy, economic desperation, and differences in class and age further alienate the characters from each other, we learn that 60 miles away from civilization is no place to renegotiate a relationship, much less rewrite the social contract. Still, the abrupt ending made us feel we’d only seen the first two acts of a three-act play.

Richard III | ★★★★ | Sweet Tea Shakespeare | Leggett Theatre, William Peace University | Through Oct. 16

Believe it or not, a sociopath can rise to the highest peak of power in a country: all it takes is money, connections, and a willingness to lie and manipulate people’s deep-seated prejudices and fears. In the title role, David Henderson’s deeply dimensional Richard repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to convey to us his cunning as he gulls the credulous, including Michael Foley’s Clarence. Director Wade Newhouse sees in the widowed Queen Elizabeth not a woman fooled by Richard’s power-motivated wooing but one with no allies or protection after her husband’s death. Designer Denise Schumaker’s intriguing costumes outfit an ensemble featuring strong performances by Aaron Alderman as the shady Buckingham, Ris Harp’s murderer, and Shaun Schneider’s Richmond. But when the cast started walking out through Richard’s last soliloquy, we wondered if we should follow suit.

Let the Right One in | ★★ ½ |  Theatre in the Park | Through Oct. 16 

Cozy little chills are scattered throughout this Halloween-season offering, but Jack Thorne’s stage adaptation of the famous 2008 vampire flick (which Showtime is reviving as a series this fall) is kludgy, with stage transitions that take longer than some of its most momentary scenes. There’s always a risk when casting children in leading roles, a necessity here since the two principal characters are twelve. Unfortunately, under Ira David Wood IV’s direction, narrow emotional bandwidths and rushed line deliveries indicate the kids still aren’t entirely ready for the mainstage.

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